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November 23, 2006

300 singers -- and one remarkable Estonian

The Oregonian (OR):

High keening, low primeval chanting and surging waves of choral harmony filled the room. For more than two hours Monday, the ancient/modernist music of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis ebbed and flowed around a packed audience at First United Methodist Church.

It was a remarkable evening, as four choirs totaling 300 singers took turns performing separately before coming together for two final songs. Lullabies rocked, war songs marched by and laments of piercing beauty unfolded. We heard children's songs, courtship songs, battle hymns, odes to weddings and in-laws and songs of dissidence and homeland.

The power of Tormis' music comes from its simplicity rooted in ancient folk music, around which the 70-year-old composer builds dense choral layers that can reach symphonic proportions or thin to a whisper. Gorgeous triadic harmonies glide in parallel chords. Repeating figures, often accompanied by a drone, emphasize the music's chant-like qualities. Contrasting timbres -- a dissonant note here, a sharp attack there -- spike the textures.

An interesting aside: American and Western European choirs put high value on diction, spitting out consonants for rhythmic and musical effect. But Estonian diction softens consonants in favor of smoother, rounder sounds. The results were silken.

Oregon choral directors revere Tormis as one of the great choral composers of our day and have invited him here -- and taken their choirs to Estonia -- on several occasions. For the past month, he and his conducting colleague Hirvo Surva have been teaching and rehearsing Tormis' music at the University of Oregon in a "Music Today Festival" directed by composer Robert Kyr. Surva was marvelous to watch: His big, bold gestures drew precise sounds from the singers.

Tormis also appeared onstage for an aboriginal song about political oppression whose only word was "taboo." The combined choirs sang the word over and over while Tormis roamed the stage beating a hand drum like a shaman.

In addition to fine and committed singing of 33 songs by the four choirs -- Milwaukie's Unistus Chamber Choir, conducted by Lonnie Cline; Pacific Youth Choir led by Mia Hall Savage; Oregon Repertory Singers conducted by Gil Seeley; and the University of Oregon Chamber Choir led by Sharon J. Paul -- the concert offered a powerful overview of a composer who values beauty, simplicity and conviction.

Posted by acapnews at November 23, 2006 12:02 AM